Incentives needed for Latin lesson

raul-sanchez-thumbDr Raul Sanchez Urribarri

First published in The Australian on 12 October, 2011.

Wrong conventionalisms die hard. For a long time, Latin America was recurrently portrayed through a variety of stereotypes, usually based on their governance problems (dictatorships and political violence) and economic malaises (inflation and economic inequality, among others).

Though still facing significant challenges, most Latin American countries have experienced sustained economic growth during the past 15 years, and democracy is now the norm.

New policies enhancing social inclusion have been put in place, often with inspiring results.

Perhaps the country that best reflects these positive changes is Brazil, the region's largest economy and one of the world's rising powers. However, smaller countries such as Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay also have gained recognition for their sustainable development strategies.

The region offers many exciting opportunities for fruitful engagement in the economic, political, social and cultural realms.

A comprehensive and forward-thinking strategy towards the region should take heed of Latin America's enormous diversity. Australia's policy platform should distinguish between countries, regions, cities, firms and individuals, and explore opportunities at all these levels, even in those places and areas that, at first glance, do not seem particularly enticing.

Take, for example, higher education. As the 2011-14 Strategic Plan of the Council on Australia-Latin America Relations points out, Australia has much to offer to Latin American students. Students from countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela are already strongly attracted to Australia, based on the country's excellent reputation as a place to visit, live, study and work, and the international prestige of its schools. Moreover, studying in Australia offers several key advantages, including a relatively flexible regime to work while studying (at least in comparison with the US); competitive tuition rates; proximity to Asia; a rich multicultural environment; and, more important, many new and unexplored avenues of co-operation.

Yet incentives to attract the best and the brightest to Australia are relatively limited, in number and reach, and this should change. Novel, practical and feasible ideas need to be explored. Businesses could partner with universities to establish grants and scholarships to help us compete with overseas rivals. Steady and sufficient financial support should be given to universities in their efforts to court and secure partner institutions in the region.

The links with Asia are particularly important. Australia is better positioned than any other leading purveyor of higher education services to help Latin American countries overcome language and cultural barriers.

We also should foster new opportunities for students, academics and professionals to study and work in Latin American countries for short or long periods, not only because of cultural or intellectual reasons but also to share knowledge and learn from these countries in those activities in which they excel, and as well as assisting them in their path towards socially responsible development.

In this sense, study abroad programs are particularly useful, especially those where staff from partnering institutions take an active part in the curriculum. Some of these programs already take our university students to memorable places and allow them to participate in life-changing experiences. This includes multiple initiatives for socioeconomic development in the region, allowing students to undergo life-changing experiences, for example, in enhancing environmental protection or helping in the fight against poverty and inequality.

Moreover, these efforts could be coupled with our present Spanish and Portuguese programs, allowing students to develop valuable skills in the global economy and, more important, a rich, additional avenue for personal fulfilment.

We already count with businesses, organisations, institutions, personnel and students interested in Latin America, and vice versa. We have several research-teaching clusters in Australia (in a variety of places, such as Australian National University, La Trobe University, the University of Melbourne and other schools), with ongoing teaching and research activities that can help generate and carry out comprehensive plans in this regard.

To fully seize the opportunities available on this front, we need greater co-operation and a unified strategy that allows all involved to make the most of their linkages with the region.

Raul Sanchez is a lecturer in the school of social Sciences at La Trobe University.